Feb 29 2016
I mean, don’t get me wrong—Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is always pretty upbeat because people are amped—dare I say stoked?—for actual racing to begin.
But this year’s event played out in a particularly satisfying fashion. Relative newcomer Luke Rowe of Sky initiated the winning move still 60k from the line, not by slipping away in crash post-crash confusion while the favorites had a nature break, but with a Hammer of Thor smackdown on the Taaienberg.
That particular climb has long been the personal hunting ground of Tom Boonen, one of the most dominant classics riders of the past decade, and who was nowhere to be seen Saturday as the selection formed. Boonen’s Etixx-QuickStep team (also one of the dominant spring squads since pretty much forever) somehow managed to flounder to an even less-auspicious finish than last year: Tony Martin crashed their chase while sitting third wheel, their efforts never sizably reduced the gap, and the team never got so much as a rider up the road.
Meanwhile, the winning selection was entertaining and easy to love. Lotto-Soudal’s 21-year-old classics prodigy Tiesj Benoot showed great form, while Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan, the world’s most exciting rider when on his game, signaled good things to come with an effortless bridge just after the Taaienberg.
Local minor league squad Verandas Willems had Brecht Dhaene and Kai Reus suffer on from the early move to well into closing stages, and AG2R’s Alexis Gougeard, hardly a classics specialist made a brilliantly measured effort to hang on from the early break as well, and lead out the sprint to preserve his 5th place finish.
Even the final kick, traditional hotbed of dull inevitability, played out well. BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, known as something of a career underachiever, rode an uncharacteristically canny race, taking his pulls but making no undue effort, before a clever little dive inside Sagan in the final corner gave him a gap that he opened all the way to the line.
Three hours later on the other side of the planet, Boels-Dolemans Evelyn Stevens began an effort that would eventually set a new Women’s Hour Record. You’d think the visual appeal in 140-some-odd rotations of the same concrete track would be limited, but the livestream (unencumbered by antiquated broadcast agreements) peaked at over 40,000 simultaneous viewers, putting quantitative value to earlier complaints when live footage of teammate Lizzie Armitsted’s win at the women’s Omloop was unavailable.
It didn’t hurt that Stevens put on a good show, riding steadily for the first 40 minutes to secure the record before opening up to take a stab at Jeannie Longo’s “superman” (and likely superhuman) mark from the late 90s. In the end, Longo’s record held, aided somewhat by Stevens’ relative inexperience on the track. But when asked by a spectator afterward about the increasing amplitude of her deviations from the fastest line, Stevens responded with engaging bravado “whatever—I was going for it” (or words to that effect).
Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne continued the trend—the race is generally a second-fiddle followup to OHN, with the previous day’s contenders content to let a different group battle it out and attempt to stave off what is more often than not an 60-rider group sprint. But Rowe and Van Avermaet were animators, joining Boonen in serious-looking escape inside the final 40k, which had some potential to keep the Katusha-driven chase at bay.
But the winning move came early—after several kilometers of rotating through for hero pulls, Trek’s Boy van Poppel took a short flier, which his teammate Stuyven countered as soon as he was caught. As Boonen would comment afterward, it was foolishly early but brilliantly delivered; with the rest of the group bickering, the 23-year-old kept came away with the solo win—a nice bit of redemption after crashing himself out of another promising solo move at Omloop the day before, not to mention a classic demonstration of team tactics.
I don’t want to gloss over the bad stuff—two rider/motorbike collisions is too many over a season of racing, let alone a single weekend. But it’s also something that is very much on the UCI’s radar. Normally that’d be sarcasm, but in the past 12 months, the UCI has begun to unravel its reputation for historical ineptitude.
It’s streamlined motor-testing to the point that 90 bikes can be tested at a given start and it’s actually managed to catch people. It’s made it easier for teams to record and broadcast cool stuff, tested early stages of a severe weather protocol, assembled a coherent top tier of women’s races across road disciplines, and thus far managed to keep out of a mudfight with the ASO—even though they are totally asking for it.
Something to be excited about? We’ll see—but certainly an improvement on years past.